Alanganallur and Palmedu in Madurai district braced for grand celebrations. It had been nearly three weeks since the Tamil Nadu government had promulgated an ordinance resuming jallikattu, and the two villages that became popular over the years for hosting the bull-taming sport were thrilled. People had arrived from afar to take part in the event – bull owners participating in these villages are as commended as the players.

The media were there too, despite the unpacking political fracas in Chennai, to make sure that they covered the action. Space at the makeshift galleries was insubstantial, and very often, locals lost out to the droves of outsiders in the jostle for the best seats in the stands.

Aware of the watchful eye of animal rights groups, the organisers had made conscious efforts to ensure the safety of the animals and players. And yet, the expected happened: at least 100 players out of the 1,500 who participated were injured, some seriously. A few bulls, terrified after the game, ran into the nearby fields to escape the crowds.

Jallikattu at Alanganallur and Palmedu on February 9 and 10 showed the limitations in regulating the traditional sport, despite all the promises.

At least seven people – bystanders and participants – have died after being knocked down by bulls since the state government overturned the two-year ban on jallikattu on January 21. On February 15, for instance, at least 34 persons were injured in Pugaiyilaipatti village, where the main road was converted into an arena that was not fenced properly, reported The Hindu. Just a day earlier, on February 14, thirteen spectators were injured in Thanjavur district at the jallikattu event, including the Deputy Director of Health. The toll wasn’t restricted to the humans. Three of the bulls used in the event fell into an open well after being let loose – one of them died.

Over the coming few months, across the southern and southwestern regions of Tamil Nadu, jallikattu arenas will spring up in several villages. And it is likely that in the boisterous celebrations, the disturbing news of injuries and deaths will get little notice.

A bull succeeds in running past the players at Alanganallur. In the game of jallikattu, a bull is released from into a playing arena, and the player is supposed to hold onto its hump for a predetermined distance to win the game. If the bull manages to run past all the players, the bull wins and its owner get the prize.
Thousands of people from across the state and some international tourists fight for space at the makeshift galleries, as the police control the crowds to avoid a stampede.
A veterinary doctor inspects a bull’s teeth to make sure it is not too young for the sport. Jallikattu has evolved over time to incorporate several regulations and checks: all the bulls must undergo health checkups to ensure that they aren’t injured, tortured or fed alcohol to make them fierce (an allegation made by animal rights activists).
A bull is surrounded by waiting players. For the players, it is ideal when a bull doesn’t ride past them immediately but instead stays in the arena for a while. This is the time when they can catch it from behind. After a game is decided, the owner of the bull must take it away from the ground.
A player undergoes an alcohol test at a primary health centre, close to the jallikattu venue at Alanganallur. Strict guidelines, mandating alcohol tests and weight checks, were introduced after allegations were made that players came to the arena inebriated.
An LED television is given as a prize at Alanganallur. As the sport has grown over the years, so have the prizes – organisers now tap sponsors to arrange expensive prizes, including sometimes cars and bikes, for the winning bull tamers.
An ambulance rushes from the ground at Alganallur, carrying an injured player. Anticipating possible casualties, ambulances and a number of medical teams are stationed at the arenas.
An owner feeds his bull a banana as they wait in scorching sun to take part in the sport. For many owners across Tamil Nadu, taking part in jallikattu at Alanganallur and Palmedu is a matter of prestige.
A bull crosses the Vadi Vasal (the gateway to the arena) as the tamers wait on the other side. Around 1,000 bulls participated each at Alanganallur and Palmedu.
There are several rules in the sport – tamers are not allowed to hold onto the horns and multiple players cannot attempt to tame one bull – and if they are flouted, the bull wins the game. Yet, desperate participants often play as they wish.
As thousands throng the village, many station themselves on rooftops of nearby buildings to get a view of the arena. Those who are left out of even these spaces wait along the route through which a bull passes after a game.
A player leaps out of the way the approaching bull as another tries to hold onto the hump. Around 100 to 150 players are allowed into the playing arena at a time.
Two owners return home, carrying the gifts earned by their bulls. Rearing bulls is not cheap: some bulls come at a price of Rs 1 lakh and looking after them can cost Rs 300 a day. For most owners, therefore, Jallikattu is a loss-making affair. Yet, they participate because of their love for the sport and for the honour of being called a Jallikattu bull owner.

All photographs courtesy Shawn Sebastian.